Since I moved to Berlin two years ago, I have consistently heard the same narrative regarding South Asian communities – the Indian food is terrible because there aren’t any real Indians in Berlin. Approximately 2,400* Indian citizens live in the city, not to mention other South Asian nationals who may share strong ties to India through relatives or birth. Yet, any talk of Indian culture in public discourse seems to be reduced to curry and naan, in part because diversity may not always advertise itself with a sign saying “hey look at me, I’m different”. Encounters with difference are often unexpected and not necessarily representative of the cultural tropes we look for. If we only look for markers of diversity we are accustomed to, like a Little Bangladesh or a plenitude of South Asian groceries, we might be missing something. Sometimes, though, recognizing diversity is a combination of both: in this account, a seemingly average game of cricket, spiced up by samosas and saris. This a retelling of experiencing everyday real Indians in Berlin, in real public space, in real time, and no, not in a restaurant.
It is a hot and sticky Sunday night, the kind where every girl on the block looks a bit like a glistening Rosie Perez in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing“. The scene of the street is one of pavement blurred by the heat that rises from a rolling black surface, a stream of hot that distorts the minarets and the treetops down the way. Butterflies of sweat decorate the backs of men waiting to cross the road, surprisingly still dressed in their shirts. Large beads of sweat form between my knuckles, on the skin beneath my wide metal bracelet, in the divet between lips and nostrils.
The sound of wood hitting a ball – the kind of ball usually not found in these parts – meets the street. I cross the asphalt to the main entrance of Tempelhofer Feld, the former airport of the Nazi air force now a recreational savannah in the district where I live. A sea of men in all white, standing in configurations familiar to other hot memories, can be seen meters away from my pace. The source of the sound: the batter’s stance, the bowler’s mound, colliding in the awkward swing but swift contact of a cricket-bat.
Tempelhof’s baseball field is quite new; they have even added the hot dog stand as a prop to the Americana stage. But on this day there are samosas and little boys in tunics, lingering in the outfield, practicing their swing.
What game is this? I ask, simply trying to strike up conversation with one of the youngsters, who curiously nods in my direction, eyes peering bashfully at the strange gawking woman poking her glance through the gate. I stand with my hands on the metal cage surrounding the field like they do in the movies when visiting the neighborhood pitch. I remember when my dad dragged my sister and me to neighborhood baseball games when we lived in San Diego, when tailgate parties forever married the hot mirage of distance over asphalt to the sound of baseball and the consumption of snacks. Not just any snacks: quality peanuts for the traditional, oily garlic fries for the Seattleite Mariner. A good ol’ hot mess. This mess has chutney or tamarind sauce as a side.
It certainly isn’t baseball, I add provocatively, though a large red sign with “Baseball” in white letters (and a picture to boot) hangs over the field precariously, as if to spell out the purpose of a caged patch of sand with strange bunker-like wings.
It’s called cricket, the eldest boy tells me almost in a whisper, in passing. He looks back at his father. I smile, but “stranger-danger” still seems to have an effect, even when separated by a 6 meter-high metal cage. I wait.
And who is playing? I ask. India is playing, he answers, then pauses. A slight smile, a look of knowing softens his jaw. What is happening now is that Indians are playing cricket. A shrug and he teeters off, almost recognizing that his words might seem strange to me, a glance thrown back with a smirk. This conversation is in German; I definitely do not look like I could be from the same place as his parents, his skin the color of chestnuts, prominent against his all white-uniform. His father calls to him in a language neither German, English, or Hindi. He runs with the ball behind his back, sweat demarcating his narrow shoulder blades onto the back of an over sized white tunic to match his father’s.
On the other edge of the fence women in saris, shorts, or tunics lean on strollers, lay in the grass, take photos or at least pretend to. All the men seem to be playing or waiting to be called. All are dressed in impeccable whites, high socks, pearly feet kicking up dust into the scorch.
The wood meets the ball, the sound of peanuts, sunsets, summer hits the air and breaks the warmth with a current of excitement. The little boy with whom I spoke puts his hand over his eyes to look for the round white rotation on the ground. The white-washed men scurry among the dust.
Cricket is a low game, it seems, and so sweat ripples down from foreheads onto the earth. The heat breathes it in.
-By Kelly Miller
For more information on playing baseball, softball, or cricket at Berlin’s Tempelhofer Feld, visit Ortsdienst. Some interesting sites in Berlin representing cultures from India that I can recommend are the Durga Puja e.V., a Hindu cultural association, and the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha e.V., Berlin’s only Sikh temple located in Berlin-Reinickendorf. Both are open to the public, hosting many free meals and religious celebrations throughout the year. I have been to both and can recommend the high-quality of the food and hospitality of the hosts!
*Indian nationals in Berlin may stem from the earlier waves of employment-based migration to later waves of specifically research and IT-related immigration , representing groups as diverse as the country from which they originate. Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, and the non-religious all make up part of this number.